Global Youth Rise Up: Teens in the Fight Against Climate Change

Malena Heineman, Student Life Editor

Before the popularization of the word “climate change,” the scientific phenomenon was largely ignored, even as advancing technology powered by fossil fuels increasingly contributed to it with greenhouse gas emissions. As research and controversy has emerged around rising levels of carbon emissions in the recent decade, younger generations have become more active in the fight against climate change, as they will be the ones left to live on the planet. Youth across the U.S. and worldwide have taken to media activism and organized walkouts in order to call attention to this crisis. 

For hundreds of years, the global carbon dioxide had never surpassed above 300 million parts per million (PPM), according to NASA. After 1950, this number began to exponentially increase, and its current level is just higher than 400 PPM and rising. Much of these carbon emissions are attributed to the burning of fossil fuels. The introduction of coal as the primary source of energy began worldwide in the mid-1700s, replacing the previously common biomass, a renewable source of energy comprised of plant and animal matter. The birth of the Industrial Revolution used coal to provide heat for buildings, make electricity a commonly accessible commodity, provide power, and create transportational innovation such as the steam engine.

According to NASA, predictions that scientists had made in accordance to global warming are already becoming a reality. Glacial ice is melting at the poles, sea levels have risen at an accelerated rate and there are longer, more severe heat waves internationally. These effects are also prevalent in the environment; the location of habitats of flora and fauna are changing, plants are beginning to flower sooner and glaciers or ice on rivers and lakes is melting and splitting apart. In a recent study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the research found that in order to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C, countries must reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030. These results suggest that eleven years is the last deadline before the Earth is beyond saving.

Throughout Earth’s history, there have been great spikes and drops in global climate and levels of carbon dioxide. But according to science teacher David Walker, what is so worrisome about current climate change is it’s relative speed.

“The rate of change in the climate is extremely quick,” Walker said. “In the cretaceous period the climate changed this much. Carbon dioxide levels got this dense in the atmosphere. That’s happened many, many times in the past, but these things have all been rather gradual, and when they happen really quickly like they are now, the results are mass extinctions. We’ve had five major mass extinctions in our geologic past, and this could be the sixth one for sure. We can see that in the biological record and in the geological record.”

Walker suspects that a majority of people are unaware that such drastic effects of global warming occur daily. According to him, the ambiguity of the umbrella term “climate change” makes it difficult for people to conceptualize the time scale of the Earth’s change.

“In your day to day life you don’t notice when it’s getting warmer or colder really, even if you go from year to year to year, so it doesn’t seem to be a very relevant problem for humans in that regard,” Walker said. “We tend to pay attention to things that are a little bit more immediate, like ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I have a homework assignment due’, so it’s very difficult to get humans to pay attention to the things that are happening more gradually when in terms of the biological and geological time scales that are happening very, very quickly.”

However, the threat posed by climate change does not stop young people from trying to make a difference. On the global scale, a worldwide climate strike took place on Sept. 20 of this year. Junior Louisa McDaniel gave a speech on behalf of the Austin Climate Coalition at the Austin faction of the protest. 

“I was actually asked to emcee the day before,” McDaniel said. “I was super nervous, but it was amazing to talk to all the speakers. Large strikes like this send a strong message to the legislature, especially since so many of us will be eligible to vote in the next election. They’re also a great way to build a community around the issue.”

Freshman Sophie Russell is one of the LASA students who attended the climate strike. According to her, these strikes are the most effective form of activism that students can be a part of, which is worth the effort even though students have to miss a majority of the school day.

“One person’s voice isn’t very loud,” Russell said. “So when lots of people come together, even if no one is really listening, everyone will still hear. If it’s a big enough crowd of people, that’s when movements are taken seriously.”

McDaniel agrees that strikes are effective in spreading awareness, but she is still concerned that the government isn’t doing enough to combat climate change. Although she said the effect of her speech was empowering and fulfilling in being able to spread her message on a larger platform, she still had many demands she felt weren’t being fully addressed by municipal and state governments.

“I want hard targets for emissions reduction to be set and met, possibly through the introduction of a carbon tax, and for the US to rejoin the Paris agreement,” McDaniel said. “Mainly, I want our government to recognize the issue.”

U.S. climate policy first began in the 1950’s with the formation of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and has grown to encompass a number of both foreign and domestic policies, conventions and agreements. According to Walker, not much progress is made to further action against climate change in the political sphere because there is no consensus on whether or not climate change exists.

“The political realm right now is definitely not at the same place as the scientific realm is, in terms of how they feel,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, people in the political realm and the governmental realm are the people that make the changes that humans need. Scientists don’t make those changes. Scientists deliver data and results, and the results overwhelming suggest humans are causing a climate change. What the science suggests is not being reflected by the people that are actually able to affect change on a national and global scale.”

LASA’s Environmental Club was formed in order to raise awareness of the extent of climate change. According to junior and club founder Chloe Brown, the club aims to promote environmentally-friendly practices on the LASA campus. 

“Last year, Gaelila McKaughan and I started environmental club because we thought that the school lacked a club that tackled such big issues we would encounter like climate change, the lack of recycling and composting at the school and really just overall waste management,” Brown said.

Last year, the club was able to bring recycling to the portables, which they did not previously due to the shortage of custodians at the school. Senior Emma Zuckerman, a member of the club, said that the club is currently focusing on compositing in order to keep addressing LASA’s waste management problem.

“The club has mostly been working on reducing waste on campus, and one way we’ve been trying is through composting,” Zuckerman said. “Last year, we had composting in two of the bathrooms for paper towels. We want to extend that to all the bathrooms, and we also are arranging after-school pick ups …. The next one is planned for November 1. Basically, you come after school and you get a trash bag to go around the campus and pick up trash.”

Students still find ways to be environmentally conscious as individuals, outside of clubs and local organizations. Junior Finn Skuldt acknowledges the fact that he still leaves a carbon footprint on the world, but he tries to stay as environmentally conscious as he can.

“My family and I try to live the most waste free as we can,” Skuldt said. “We divert all our food waste to chickens that we keep in the back of our yard, we don’t buy new clothes and we don’t eat food that’s not, in some respects, environmentally friendly, like farmed fish or a lot of GMO products. I definitely contribute to climate change just by living, eating and moving around the world, but I would say that I’m more conscientious of how my actions affect the environment than many people are.” 

Skuldt believes the children of the youngest generation will be left to decide what action to take against climate change in order to save themselves, their future children and the Earth itself.

“I think that the fact that we live in a time where we are seeing the effects of what past generations have done has made us need to be more conscious about it and more knowledgeable,” Skuldt said. “But it’s also just the necessity of it so that the planet doesn’t die before we do. It’s come to a point where change has to be made.”